National Road Pricing Scheme a possibility again – apparently

This report in the Telegraph claims that the Government are going ahead with plans to test satellite-based tracking with a view to using it as the basis of a national road-pricing scheme.

It was also the Telegraph that broke the story last October that these plans had apparently been shelved, or “back burnered” as it was put. It’s now clear that far from being shelved the plans for tests into the viability of national road charging are now at an advanced stage, with trials set to start in January 2010.

Personally I see little problem with the concept of a national road-charging scheme, however it seems clear to me that these trials will be a multi-million pound waste of money with huge potential profits for consultancy firms but little, if any, chance of the plans actually reaching fruition. It seems entirely likely that there will be at least one change of government before any national road-charging scheme is introduced and I don’t believe that any party will have the political will to see this through.

It’s only necessary to look at what’s happening in Manchester at the moment to see that motorists and the business community will use any argument possible to promote their own self-interested views on having to pay for the congestion they cause.

The first argument the Government need to get past is that of the Civil Liberties camp. While the real-time tracking of vehicles seems to scare these people to death, they seem to happily ignore the fact that they can already be tracked by their mobile phone usage, by ANPR cameras, by CCTV and by their use of credit cards and banking facilities. Presumably, if the will was present, measures could be built into any road-charging system to avoid its use to actively track and report on motorists’ movements; although law-enforcement agencies already seem to be keen to make use of their ability to track people by the other means mentioned.

Motorists will no doubt scream that they are already paying too much for motoring costs, particularly fuel, and that they’re already paying a yearly flat-rate charge (VED or ‘Road Tax’) AND a charge that is effectively based on their fuel consumption and the miles travelled (excise duty on road fuel). The argument goes that the amount the government receive from motorists far exceeds the amount that they spend on road maintenance and new road-building.

The Telegraph here, are pushing the headline rate of £1.30 per mile; leading one contributor to comment: “On the specific topic of road pricing: at £1.30 per mile, the round trip to visit my elderly mother (motorway all the way) will cost me an ADDITIONAL £780. What kind of world are these people living in?”. The £1.30 per mile is of course the proposed rate for using the most congested roads in the country at absolute peak times. Given the apparent hardship (and moaning) caused by the average 3-4p/mile increase in fuel prices over the last few months I would say that it’s entirely unlikely that the Government would try and introduce an average charge per mile of anything approaching this claimed amount.

Of course I have no information at all about the proposed charges, other than what’s been suggested by Government sources and speculated in the press already. Based on what I’ve read, common sense and maybe a bit of wishful thinking, I could imagine that Vehicle Excise Duty (‘road tax’) could be abolished (there’s no need for yearly insurance checks now that the system’s automated) and that 15-20p/litre could be cut off fuel prices, putting our fuel prices on a par with the rest of Europe, and a corresponding amount, say 3p mile, charged as the base level charge for uncongested roads during off-peak hours. During peak times the most congested routes (think Hammersmith Road, the M25 at Heathrow or the main commuter route into any major city) would be charged at something approaching the top end of the scale. The extra charge above the base level would be a disincentive to using commuter routes at peak times, much like the proposed Manchester congestion charge.

As the decrease in car use due to the current high fuel prices has shown, car use isn’t entirely necessary in many situations – we only use them because they’re convenient and, at least before the higher fuel prices, cheap to use compared to the alternatives. We all know that traffic congestion is a problem in this country and most of us accept that we can’t cover every inch of space in the country with tarmac to solve the problem. Unfortunately many of us also take the attitude that other motorists are the ones causing the congestion and our own journeys are somehow more important.

The reality is that the motorway and major road network has been developed over the years to encourage the economic development of the country as a whole and specific regions in particular, primarily by allowing good access for freight traffic. That the improved road system has also encouraged extended ‘drive-to-work’ zones and the emergence of the long-distance commuter is to most of us an unwelcome side-effect.

There’s no absolute requirement for anybody to commute 70 miles each way by car at peak times. People only choose to do it because the opportunity’s available to them and the financial rewards gained from driving such a long distance make it worthwhile. Remove the opportunity, or make it financially unattractive, and people are quick to find alternative solutions. If the road network wasn’t there, or it became prohibitively expensive to use it at peak times then people could choose to work closer to home, or live closer to work, or commute by another means, or even work from home. Everyone must accept that the road network can never expand indefinitely to meet all the demands that will potentially be made of it.

The final group who will demand consideration is the road transport industry, who of course have their own set of priorities, foremost of which is to be allowed to compete with foreign hauliers on an equal basis, without being crippled by the higher fuel tax levied in the UK. I wonder if it could possibly be the demands of the road transport industry that have caused the Government to re-examine their options on road pricing.

If VED on commercial vehicles was abolished, or at least reduced to a reasonable level, and duty on fuel was cut so that it was on a par with other European countries then the UK transport industry would have the level playing field they’ve been demanding since the early nineties. It’s clear that UK based commercial vehicles could be charged using the same system that would apply to private vehicles, although in the case of commercial vehicles a flat-rate per mile charging scheme would make more sense, rather than the proposed congestion based system. The question would remain on how foreign lorries would be charged for using the UK road network.

In April 2002, in response to fuel price protests, the Government concluded that foreign operators should be charged for using the UK road system on the basis of the miles travelled on UK roads. This system was originally to have been introduced by early 2006 but the proposal was subsequently quietly dropped, without too much fanfare and, surprisingly, little if any action by the Road Haulage Association, the Freight Transport Association et al.

As far as I know there was never any firm reason given for the dropping of the Lorry Road User Charge scheme, but reading between the lines it seems to me that the sticking point may have been the problem of interoperability between the UK’s proposed system and systems proposed for other EU states. Germany has had just such system in operation since January 2005 without any worries about interoperability – manual toll payments are made if the vehicle isn’t fitted with the automatic charging equipment.

Could it be that the Government have resurrected their plans for national road charging in order to introduce per mile charging for foreign registered vehicles and placate the increasingly rebellious road haulage industry, while covering the overall cost of introducing these measures by including them in the costs for general road-charging? The timing of this apparent U-turn seems to point firmly towards this, but could it be that the Government have just ‘suggested’ to the road haulage industry that the upcoming trials are leading towards the road charging situation that the haulage industry wants, merely to keep the hauliers from any embarrassing protests until after the proposed trials have been concluded?

Due to their current unpopularity it seems clear that the current Government are likely to avoid calling a general election until the absolute latest opportunity; by 3rd June 2010 at the latest. Considering the political benefits to be gained from avoiding the hauliers’ ongoing fuel protests while handing over the political hot potato of road-charging to their successors it seems perhaps hardly surprising that the Government have adopted this new stance.

Posted under Fuel Prices, Protests & Strikes, Tolls, Charges & Fines

Posted by Alec at 7:49 pm, August 18, 2008

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